Charter schools have plenty of battles to face to receive adequate resources. If the fight for equal funding and access to empty buildings was not enough to keep charter advocates busy, charter supporters are increasingly aware of the importance and opportunity involved in accessing local revenue streams that districts rely upon for most of their facility funding and certain operating funds.

This may seem like a long shot and in many states, and some districts, the politics are too difficult to imagine charters accessing revenues traditionally directed to school districts.  But as this past election demonstrates, there are too many examples where charters have accessed local revenue to ignore. For example, this past November saw success in Durango, CO where three charters were included in the local District’s bond election, even through two of those charters are not even authorized by the district. 

Thanks to a law passed in 2018, Michigan charter schools are able to access their share of county-wide millage tax revenue. Voters approved one in Wayne County (Detroit) that will provide about $90 million per year to both school districts and charter schools in Wayne County beginning in 2022.

Also, in Arizona, voters passed Proposition 208, which will enact an additional income tax for Arizona’s high-earners. All of the money will go to public and charter schools. Creators of the initiative estimated that it could bring in $940 million for schools every year.

What is so surprising is that neither Arizona nor Michigan required the districts to share these funds. These were voluntary initiatives.

The legislative route can help - a handful of state statutes address charter schools and local bond elections. Four states (AK, CO, GA, NM) have regulations although they are not as effective as anticipated. Generally, charter schools fare better where charter school families vote.

For example, California charter schools have accessed significantly more bond funding than anywhere else, over $1 billion dollars as of 2019. It’s ironic because the state has no statutory provision supporting charter school access to bond questions. Advocacy efforts and the power of the vote make up for the lack of regulations.  In California local school district bond elections need 55% voter approval to raise taxes – and in many districts the charter school share of the voting population is enough to make a difference and districts understand that if they want their bond passed it’s in their interest to include charters.   

There are no state statutes that mandate inclusion of charters in bond elections. Georgia, New Mexico, and Colorado have some requirements for districts to inform or include charters of upcoming bond questions. As a result, these states have produced funding for charter facilities through bond elections, ranging from a few instances in Georgia, to dozens of schools benefitting from hundreds of millions of dollars in Colorado.  We estimate about 35 elections and over 200 schools that have resulted in more than $1.2 billion in bond proceeds being shared with charter schools. The vast majority of that (over 100 schools and $1 billion) is in California.

This battle can be won, although it takes a lot of advocacy and it requires charter schools to show they can impact elections.

We’ve learned that sweeping state mandates requiring charter inclusion are challenging to pass and implement. However, modest directives and language, including relatively simple enabling and transparency provisions, are much more viable and surprisingly useful. In an upcoming report, we lay out 5 strategies to begin the process of receiving bond and mill levy proceeds:

  1. Simply saying it is possible to share bond proceeds and mill levies opens doors in a practical sense, while also opening eyes to options not previously considered;
  2. Requiring charters to submit a facilities plan that meets statutory or local district expectations or standards implicitly requires the district to put its standards into writing;
  3. Requiring districts to notify charters of upcoming ballot questions by a set date (explicit in the statute language) or number of days prior to the deadline for filing the language gives times to get their facility plan together
  4. Requiring districts to include local charters in whatever form their facilities planning efforts take (e.g. long-range planning committees) also provides time and a forum for charters to be part of the process and mobilize their efforts; and
  5. Requiring districts to provide written explanation for their reasons of charter exclusion, if a district chooses not to include local charters in the bond or mill levy question, adds more transparency to the issue and holds officials accountable.

These five provisions are hard for opponents to argue against in policy conversations.  Each provision is a variation on a common “good neighbor” or “good government” measure that sells well, especially in the context of asking voters to increase taxes. These minor revisions are a commonsense way to enhance district transparency and voter confidence, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of charter inclusion.

They may not be the silver bullet to force districts to share bond proceeds, but they provide charter schools a seat at the table and a chance to flex their advocacy and voting muscles.

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